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Ask an Expert: Q&A with Luis-Felipe Duchicela on How USAID Partners with Indigenous Peoples

InsightsLocalization & Inclusive Development
Luis-Felipe and Vy Lam from USAID pose for a group photo with Arwaco leaders of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia.
Luis-Felipe and Vy Lam from USAID pose for a group photo with Arwaco leaders of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia.
Jul 1, 2022
Luis-Felipe Duchicela

Luis-Felipe Duchicela is USAID’s Senior Advisor for Indigenous Peoples’ Issues. 

As part of our Localization & Inclusive Development blog series, we spoke with Luis-Felipe about USAID's work with Indigenous partners around the world.

Q: Why is USAID seeking to expand its partnerships with Indigenous-led organizations?

USAID has programs in more than 100 countries around the world. The purpose of this assistance is to address issues of poverty, marginalization, and lack of access to services for populations in these countries. Indigenous peoples make up approximately 5–7 percent of the world’s population, with a population estimated between 400 to 600 million people. However, Indigenous peoples are often marginalized and represent 15 percent of the world’s poor. Many Indigenous peoples inhabit remote areas with difficult access which makes it more costly for governments to provide services. They also are often victims of violence due to illegal activities in their territories. The needs and aspirations of Indigenous peoples need to be addressed in a very specific way. USAID’s Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was approved in March 2020, is taking a very specialized and deliberate approach to addressing the rights, needs, problems, and aspirations of Indigenous peoples globally.

Q: What are some of those aspirations of Indigenous peoples?

In the past 40 years, Indigenous peoples globally have come together and have asked the United Nations (UN) to recognize them as a group of people that have very specific needs and circumstances, and because of that, they require a special set of human rights. That process culminated in September 2007 when the UN approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which simply reflects their particular realities, needs, and aspirations. The main ones are related to land and natural resources. There are also other rights concerning language, culture, education, and civil and political rights. These all really point to the direction of what is called self-determined development. So, the USAID Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is very much aligned with self-determined development and the recognition that the actors need to be empowered to make those decisions. 

Q. What sets USAID’s approach apart from the approaches of other development organizations?

Many international development agencies, multilateral or bilateral, tend to focus efforts more on the do-no-harm or risk management aspects of working with Indigenous peoples. This can be divided into two parts: the first is the reputational risk to institutions and their desire to minimize their political risks, and the other is the risk of actually harming the Indigenous peoples in unintentional ways. This risk management approach is present in many development institutions. However, one thing that has been neglected is precisely the vision and aspirations of Indigenous peoples for their futures. They need to construct their destinies in their own ways, based on their cultural values and physical and natural environments. 

The way USAID approached the development of its Policy on Promoting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is very different from the way other, more traditionally established agencies have handled development as it relates to Indigenous peoples. USAID’s policy is built around the idea that Indigenous peoples need to be empowered to make decisions about their livelihoods and about what they want to do and be in the future. In order to do that, USAID takes the approach of partnering with Indigenous peoples, helping them to build their capacities, and promoting an enabling environment in their countries. 

Q: Where does USAID work with Indigenous peoples?

USAID works with Indigenous peoples globally, but probably has more experience in Latin America, where some countries have a large and recognized Indigenous population, such as Guatemala, where nearly 44 percent of the population identifies as Indigenous. Even in countries with small percentages of Indigenous peoples—such as Colombia with 4 percent or Panama with 7 percent—the lands that are claimed or legally recognized by Indigenous peoples are very large. This situation is common in many countries because Indigenous peoples have inhabited large geographies in varying ecosystems. They have been isolated from the rapid urbanization process of countries and have maintained large ecosystems—and that is one of the reasons why 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity is protected in Indigenous peoples’ territories. 

USAID works throughout Latin America and values its partnerships with Indigenous peoples in countries such as Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Brazil in the Amazon region or in the Mesoamerica highlands and forests from Mexico to Panama. 

USAID is strengthening and expanding its work for Indigenous peoples in Africa and Asia. For instance, USAID is currently implementing the Advancing Rights in Southern Africa (ARISA) program that focuses on assisting Indigenous peoples in Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and South Africa in organizing, mobilizing, and representing themselves and the challenges they face. In Ethiopia, USAID is designing a public-private partnership to improve biodiversity and livelihood security in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo region through investments in community-based conservation, ecotourism, and regenerative agriculture. USAID’s Democratic Republic of Congo’s Central Africa Regional Program for the Environment conducted an in-depth assessment to enhance the engagement of Indigenous peoples in programming and to reduce the threat of the commercial bushmeat trade, reduce deforestation, and improve protected area management. USAID/Uganda addressed priority concerns in the southwestern region of the country and Karamoja by facilitating listening sessions with the Batwa, So, and Ik Indigenous communities to inform local governments’ efforts to improve access to services and promote the awareness of rights. 

USAID has also partnered with organizations to implement projects in Asia to benefit Indigenous peoples. For instance, in the Philippines, USAID engaged and partnered directly with Indigenous peoples through the Protect Wildlife Project. USAID helped to update management plans for key natural sacred habitats, collected Indigenous traditional knowledge on medicinal plants, and provided capacity building for conservation enterprises for Indigenous peoples. In Cambodia, USAID’s Greening Pray Lang Project is working with community-based organizations, the majority of which are Indigenous peoples, to build their technical and organizational capacity on Free, Prior, and Informed consent (FPIC) for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) initiatives, and wildlife-friendly agriculture value chains and ecotourism sites. 

Q: What unique challenges do Indigenous organizations face in seeking partnerships with USAID?

USAID seeks to partner with Indigenous peoples, communities, traditional authorities, Indigenous peoples organizations (IPO), indigenous businesses, and Indigenous-based nongovernmental organizations (NGO). When we talk about USAID partnerships with Indigenous peoples, the possibilities and challenges vary depending on many factors including the legal status of said organization, their capacity, and the type of partnership sought. To name a few options, USAID may partner with an organization as a thought partner, as a key stakeholder with oversight of a project, and as a project implementer. 

To establish these various partnerships, USAID first engages with Indigenous peoples in a different way, in a more transparent and permanent way to build trust and not be as opportunistic in terms of engaging just for a particular project. Rather, we recognize that USAID needs to build a permanent engagement with them. That will enable USAID to understand their needs on the ground and establish a working relationship with them.

The other aspect is the ability to build and design programs in a collaborative, participatory way. It becomes a bit challenging with Indigenous peoples because of language or cultural barriers, lack of certain competencies on both sides, and the issue of remote areas. We need to overcome those challenges and establish relationships in which project design is done in a participatory way, and we call that co-creation. USAID is trying to promote the concept of co-creation, not only with Indigenous peoples but throughout our programming. In the past few years, we have seen good results, such as in Guatemala with the Mesoamerican Alliance for People and Forests among others.

Another obstacle, and perhaps the greatest, is that IPOs need to have a strong structure of management and financial administration for planning and monitoring projects. In order to guarantee the proper administration of taxpayer dollars, USAID requires sufficient competencies, systems, and experience to safeguard against fraud, waste, and abuse. Traditionally, USAID and other development partners have worked with other NGOs which have passed these thresholds as an intermediary, rather than through direct financial relationships. However, we may miss a partnership opportunity with this traditional relationship. Conventional implementing partners of USAID are structured to take on the full management of the project and will consider Indigenous peoples just as a beneficiary, and that’s not the idea we are trying to foster. We want to go to the other paradigm where Indigenous peoples drive development themselves. Missions would need to invest a lot in capacity development and take a different longer-term strategy for capacity development. Any serious and sustained effort on capacity development takes a long time. This often goes against the pressures that many institutions have to produce short–term results. USAID is trying to design projects collaboratively to address short-, medium-, and long-term goals in a balanced way. 

Q: What advice do you have for Indigenous-led organizations that are interested in partnering with USAID?

IPOs should recognize that they need to have these competencies, skills, and capacities to manage funds, either built into their organization or through a fiduciary partner that they trust that will work hand-in-hand with them over the life of the project.

They also need to think carefully about the proposals and initiatives they bring to USAID. Instead of bringing initiatives just to say “we want money in order to help artisans here in Guatemala or Peru,” they should say they need technical skills and assistance to build their own competencies to plan, manage, monitor, and evaluate projects and programs. So, instead of going directly to the needs on the ground, go a step higher and say we need institutional and capacity building in our governing organizations. This is very different from the common approach today which is to basically aspire to get financial resources for needs on the ground to directly solve the many problems and needs that they have but without really building their own ingrained capacity to solve them in the long term. By only looking for money for short-term needs they are perpetuating a paternalistic cycle of funding immediate short-lived solutions. They need to break with that and seek sustained capacity development and best practices and get technical assistance to help them to develop strategic plans, manage projects, avoid mismanagement, perform impact evaluations, and be able to monitor and evaluate projects on their own. Once they do that, I believe they will begin to access much more funding and resources not only from USAID but also from their own governments and cooperation agencies. 

Q: What are some success stories about USAID partnering with Indigenous-led organizations? 

We have some good examples, and the ones that come to mind are mainly in Latin America. Two big projects in South America, the Amazon Indigenous Rights and Resources Activity, implemented by the World Wildlife Fund, and the Strengthening Capacities of Indigenous Organizations in the Amazon, implemented by Pact, both work on capacity development in the Amazon basin. There is also a project in Colombia, the Indigenous Peoples and Afro-Colombian Empowerment Activity, implemented by Fundación ACDI/VOCA LA (FAVLA)

But a key story that I want to highlight is a smaller project in which we have been piloting a more powerful approach. This project is the B’atz Project, which was co-created with USAID/Guatemala and the Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests in coalition with an American NGO called the Rainforest Foundation US. It is a $2 million, three-year project and it was entirely co-created. The project was designed to strengthen the institutional capacity of this regional organization in technical areas, in strengthening their own fundraising capacity for their own communities, and to have a leadership school in this Mesoamerican Alliance. The funds from USAID are directed to fulfill the vision of the Mesoamerican Alliance. In other words, it is not imposed on them—it is used to nourish their own vision so they could continue working to benefit communities from Mexico to Panama. They needed to have the Rainforest Foundation US as a partner because the Mesoamerican Alliance doesn’t have the capacity to administer the funds at the moment. So the Rainforest Foundation US comes in as, what I would call, a “fiduciary-mentoring” partner that assumes the role of being the prime grantee and transfers the funds to the Mesoamerican Alliance while at the same time transferring skills and building capacity so that the IPO themselves can assume that role in a few years. 

Q: What lessons (both for USAID and for partners) have been learned from these successful partnerships that can be applied elsewhere?

We have a basic set of good practices and examples from different parts of the world that demonstrate how to get better results and how to be more effective in working with Indigenous peoples. Some of these things are relatively easy to implement but require a big change in attitude and mindset.

Other lessons are more difficult and more complex because Indigenous peoples face a lot of controversial issues—politically, socially, and culturally, which require our colleagues to be very well prepared and be able to advocate when doing development work. One reason we created this Global Development Alliance, the Indigenous Peoples Alliance for Rights and Development (IPARD) based in Panama City, Panama, is to help USAID Missions to navigate problematic and political areas. The IPARD and FSC Indigenous Foundation are building their arsenal of tools, best practices, successful models, and partnerships to help USAID and countries deploy best practices in a relatively efficient way. The IPARD has also established trustworthy long-term relations with a number of IPOs and networks such as the Global Alliance for Territorial Communities (GATC), COICA, REPALEAC, IPACC, and the AMPB. This will enable IPARD to foster dialogues and collaborative work between IPOs, governments, the private sector, and NGOs in a given country. 

If you are an Indigenous peoples’ organization looking to work with USAID, we encourage you to explore the Agency's Indigenous peoples page and complete their contact form. We also encourage you to take the Pre-Engagement Assessment to determine your readiness and register in the Partner Directory to get connected with similar organizations.